Sometimes Honor Is Wrong -- The Problem With John McCain

What if the Bush error is so big there can be no happy endings? In this sense McCain's personal experiences would work against our country.
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The question is this: will America sacrifice herself to vindicate the personal sense of honor of one man? If there were no war, Senator McCain might be a good president. With the Iraq war going on, however, there is an overriding reason to vote against McCain in 2008. I say this as a former McCain supporter. The reason to vote against McCain, paradoxically, is McCain's military experience. I'm not referring to his experience with military affairs, but the personal military experiences that shaped him. (Disclosure: In the 2000 Republican primary season I went on numerous conservative and religious radio talk shows to argue for McCain against the Bush crowd and against the Republican right. McCain returned the favor by writing a great endorsement of my book AWOL-The Unexcused Absence of America's Upper Classes From Military Service, And How It Hurts Our Country. It makes me sad I can't support McCain now.) The problem is that McCain doesn't see himself as a civilian. He was, is and will always be defined in his own mind by the code of military service. This would be a great quality in a general or perhaps in a peacetime president, but will be disastrous in wartime. There is a reason our founders wanted America's military to have dispassionate civilian leadership. McCain thinks of himself in terms of honor, service and sacrifice. These laudable abstract spiritual ideas are a terrific quality in officers leading last stands or in medics attending the battlefield wounded. But honor, service and sacrifice are the wrong code for directing national policy. Anyone who has read my military novel Baby Jack or nonfiction works including Keeping Faith -- A Father-Son Story About Love and the United States Marine Corps and Faith Of Our Sons -- A Father's Wartime Diary, knows that there is no writer in America who is a bigger fan of our military or its ethic of service, than I am. I never served and stand in grateful awe of those that do.

That said, the reason we have civilian leadership of our military is that the military code of honor is great for the military, lousy for the world of civilian decision making. It is even lousy for the military -- if the military code is adopted by the nation's leaders. McCain would bring both a historical perspective and psychological needs to the presidency. Simply put, McCain does not want to be the president that presides over today's Iraqi equivalent of the mass exit from the rooftop of Saigon's American embassy. McCain comes from a generation of military people deeply hurt by another war-gone-bad, a war McCain paid a huge personal and heroic price for. But what if another Vietnam-style debacle is preferable to a catastrophe? What if that catastrophe is driven by the next president's stubborn refusal to admit failure, or even admit his own historic mistake in voting for the Iraq war? What if military-style honor cannot be served? What if the Bush error is so big there can be no happy endings? In this sense McCain's personal experiences would work against our country. Mark Benjamin points this out in "McCain's Vietnam Obsession."

[A] look at his record shows that [McCain] subjects every major foreign-policy decision to a Vietnam-derived test ... summed up by the McCain quote, 'We're in it, now we must win it.'

So entrenched are those lessons that McCain sounds, at times, like he wishes they could be applied retroactively. 'We lost in Vietnam because we lost the will to fight, because we did not understand the nature of the war we were fighting, and because we limited the tools at our disposal,' McCain said at a speech on Iraq at the Council on Foreign Relations on Nov. 5, 2003. And for that reason, it might be advisable to take him at his word when he says he'll stay in Iraq for 100 years...

My own stupid mistake in supporting the early stages of the Iraq war is a good example of how loyalty to the military code (even by osmosis) can deform one's judgment. In the early stages of the Iraq war I wrote several op-ed pieces for the Washington Post that criticized people who were against the war. I was wrong. My only excuse -- and it's not a good one -- is that with my son in the Marine Corps I wanted to defend him and support his volunteering to serve. I confused supporting my son's honor with support for his commander in chief's policies. I was horribly mistaken. I was taking the deep sense of purpose and pride given to our family through our son's volunteering, and allowing this emotion to color my views of a war I'd never have thought was a good idea otherwise. That is McCain's problem: the Iraq War is too deeply personal to him. He also has had a son serving, but I mean something else. I mean that McCain confuses his personal ethic of past military service with future policy. Listen to McCain speaking and you hear an old man looking backward while articulating a litany of maudlin references to his sense of honor, service and sacrifice as the main reason for electing him. McCain seems ready to sacrifice the American future to his sense of past personal honor. Why else would he be refusing to admit his mistake of supporting the Bush fiasco? As an afterthought McCain talks about policy, about not making things worse in the future by pulling out of Iraq "too soon," about how he was an early critic of how the war was conducted, etc. But the real McCain heartbeat is his sense of military honor. Honor is what makes the military tick. In the military context that code is precisely what the military needs most. But military honor doesn't translate into the messy nuance of civilian life let alone policy. That's why President Truman decided MacArthur was insubordinate, and relieved him of command on April 11, 1951. Perhaps military honor was not served by Truman. The Chinese communists were indeed evil. Millions of North Koreans died horrible deaths as a result of The US not winning because Truman believed that the war could not be won. We left some American soldiers behind -- literally -- in the North Korean camps. There was a storm of controversy. Truman "lost" North Korea it was said. History shows Truman was right. Truman probably prevented World War Three. He was president of the United States, not of the world. He was looking out for us, not for the suffering Koreans. We don't want a president with a desire to be vindicated and "win" at all costs. We don't want a president who imagines himself to be the next Winston Churchill, leading against all odds. Why? Because this sad war in Iraq is not World War Two any more than Korea was. It is not the hinge of fate, just a horrible mistake by a horrible president. Iraq never attacked us. Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. The terrorists were not in Iraq while Hussein was in charge. We opened the door for them. We aren't bringing democracy to Iraq. This was a war of dumb choice launched in a part of the world that can't ever be fixed by our military. We brought this fiasco on ourselves unnecessarily. Any candidate who won't admit this by now should be automatically disqualified from consideration.

The next president will inherit the mess George W. Bush created with a big assist from Senators McCain and Hilary Clinton, and from other members of congress. If we are to get out of the mess they made we need good judgment and a ruthless disregard for any concern other than for the good of the American people. Above all we need a completely fresh start. And of the three presidential candidates only Senator Obama can provide that. Only Obama showed good judgment on this matter. McCain's and Clinton's future decisions will inevitably be clouded by the need for self-justification for mistakes they have yet to admit. And, unlike Obama, they are in no position to restore faith in America by the rest of the world. McCain has taken his lack of good judgment about Iraq to the next level. He has joined himself at the hip to the Bush disaster by demanding a "win." While we may empathize with our soldiers, who have given so much and who may grimly want to be vindicated when it comes to "sticking it out" and wanting to "win" what we can't do is elect a president whose idea of honor guarantees more wasted sacrifice.

It is time for America to draw a line under the Bush years not add to them! We may have to watch in horror as the Iraqis commit mass suicide. So be it. It's not clear that our continued presence in Iraq could prevent that suicide. What is the alternative? Bleed our treasury dry? Sell our future to the Chinese as we borrow more and more money? Lose more and more American men and women? Rule the Middle East forever, while we destroy our economy to do it? Hand the whole region over to Iran, the one country that is, so far, the only real winner of Bush's war? Fight forever because Bush and now McCain, can't say the simple words; "I was wrong?"

Until McCain admits that the war he wants to "win" was based on mistakes and defended by lies the mere and endless repetition of the word honor will ring hollow. We need a new Truman for president, not today's version of MacArthur. The next president needs to guard the interests of the United States of America, not the abstract principles he lives by and his own sense of wounded pride. There is nothing more out of place than a great man at the wrong time, especially an old man living in his past who seems to have forgotten that lasting honor must be based on truth.

Frank Schaeffer is a writer and author of "Crazy for God: How I Grew Up As One Of The Elect, Helped Found The Religious Right, And Lived To Take All (Or Almost All) Of It Back"

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